UK airports scrap £9 million iris recognition scheme

Iris scanners due to be scrapped

Birmingham and Manchester airports have scrapped multi-million pound eye scanners, which were introduced to speed up passport control. Heathrow and Gatwick are expected to ditch their scanners after the Olympics.

The Labour government spent around £9million on the Iris Recognition Immigration System – also known as IRIS.

According to ministers the scanners were able to process travellers in as little as 12 seconds, however passengers often spent longer being scanned by the machines than when going through traditional passport control.

Some travellers have had the misfortune of getting trapped inside the scanning booth when they stopped working.

Border Agency bosses have refused to state whether the scanners will be removed completely, and announced they are ‘still considering’ the future of IRIS.

In 2004, then immigration minister Des Brown unveiled IRIS claiming it would provide a ‘watertight’ check of identities as well as slashing queues.

The system was targeted at foreign passport holders within the UK who travel frequently, and want to avoid queues. Users were required to undergo a free 15-minute registration to record the pattern of their iris every two years.

When launched the IRIS system cost £4million to run on top of its £4.9million development cost.

However plans to use the technology for UK passports were dropped after the revelation that one in ten travellers were wrongly rejected by the machine, and then were forced to wait for manual checks.

Lucy Moreton, Immigration Service Union’s general secretary said that the IRIS scheme has had problems from the beginning.

She said: “IRIS scanners are prone to throwing up false alerts when genuine travellers try to use them. We welcome the decision to phase them out”.

James Baker, of privacy group No2ID said: “This is recognition that IRIS scanning is an expensive failure. The money would be better spent employing more trained staff to use their initiative and check passports manually”.

A spokesman for the Home Office said: “We are phasing our IRIS and will be replacing it with other types of gates that non-EU passengers will be able to use”.

Article by Charlotte Greenhalgh

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One Comment

  1. Peter Forrest says:

    It could be argued that the removal of Iris eye-scanning technology at Manchester and Birmingham airports is more to do with citizen reluctance to provide biometric information, which is why only 385,000 passengers have submitted their details since the technology was installed in 2005.

    This reluctance to provide information is leaving governments with no option but to undertake covert surveillance of the entire population. From passenger manifests of every departure from the UK routinely supplied to the security services, to email and telephone monitoring, law abiding citizens globally are being watched, travel history tracked and purchases assessed as never before.

    If the war against global terrorism is to have any chance of success, security services have little choice. Today’s lack of consensus on border security technologies has combined with political ‘empire building’ to leave intelligence gatherers without access to critical information. There is limited real time information sharing, a distinct lack of travel history and inefficient, inaccurate passenger verification. And while passengers are reluctant to share this biometric information, the result is long delays and, to be frank, a less secure travel environment.

    From a technical perspective, information sharing is feasible today. The global communications infrastructure is in place, database interoperability and connectivity standards are being developed, whilst the International Standards Organization (ISO) has created a raft of standards for biometrics etc. And whilst the development of real time information sharing and passenger verification would demand a significant integration process, the barrier is not technical but a lack of political consensus combined with an unwillingness to force individuals to share biometrics.

    Unless there is a radical shift in culture and attitude, and recognition that biometric capture is about safer travel not criminal accusation, governments will continue to embark upon covert activity that may improve intelligence gathering but will do nothing to alleviate the pain and delay now endemic within international travel.


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